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Having the climate cake and eating it too

Is it possible to solve climate change, reduce poverty and save biodiversity at a single stroke? It might seem like a dream, but this is exactly the issue that is being discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) in Bali 3-14 December 2007.

The key is to include reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) in the Kyoto Protocol so that developing countries can be compensated for saving their forests and woodlands.

A recent paper in the African Journal of Ecology points out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 20-25% of current annual carbon emissions result from loss of tropical forest. This has prompted efforts to renegotiate climate change policy to include REDD so that tropical forest nations can claim compensation for sustainable management of their natural forest resources. But not all tropical countries are pushing for an agreement and many African countries do not appear to be participating in the discussion. Eliakimu Zahabu from the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania and lead author on the paper suggests that “The lack of African action might be partly because estimation of carbon emission from the forest sector has been based on forest areas cleared entirely, i.e. deforestation, but excludes the small-scale degradation processes common in African dry forests”.

This means that the concepts for lowering carbon emissions from developing countries that have been worked out under the climate change agreements need rethinking. Dr Margaret Skutsch, from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, has been studying the problem for five years “Degradation is often a different process with different drivers and needs a different instrument in Kyoto” she says, and adds “for African countries to benefit from the new policy, they need to support the idea of reduced emissions from controlling degradation in a way that reflects African realities, and to do this they need to engage in the debate.”

Taking Tanzania as an example, Zahabu estimates that the country could earn $630 million annually or $119 per rural household, from the REDD policy. Prof. Jon Lovett, an expert on Tanzania biodiversity and associate editor of the African Journal of Ecology, points out that “the biggest problem in tropical forest management is paying for it: to date the preferred option has been to remove the valuable timber without any post-logging care, and then the process of degradation starts. A REDD policy would change that so that forest managers could conserve both carbon and biodiversity, it would be an unbelievable break-through.” In addition, poverty alleviation isn’t just about direct payments for carbon.

Prof. Lovett continues “Forests, particularly the dry forests which cover so much of Africa, are essential for people’s livelihoods, producing medicines, honey, food, forage, rope, just about anything you can imagine. Community based forest management supported by Kyoto payments would be central to poverty reduction.” A simple change in policy thus has the potential to have a triple solution: carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction. This looks a lot like being able to have our cake and eating it too, providing that the meeting at Bali can move towards reaching an agreement.

Davina Quarterman | alfa
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